COLUMBUS, Ohio—Plans to build the nation’s first freshwater wind farm in Lake Erie northeast of Cleveland took a major – and unexpected – step forward Thursday, as state regulators reversed their previous decision to limit the nighttime operation of the proposed wind turbines.
But despite the Ohio Power Siting Board’s decision, there are still details that need to be worked out regarding how to mitigate the harm to animals from Icebreaker Wind, a $126 million, 20.7-megawatt pilot project that has been in the works for more than a decade.
During a virtual meeting that involved a level of discussion and debate unusual for the Power Siting Board, board members unanimously voted to rescind part of an order they issued last May that approved construction of the wind turbines only if the turbine blades didn’t move at night between March 1 and Nov. 1, on the grounds that they would harm bats and birds.
Such a limit would be a “poison pill” that would make the project financially infeasible, according to Dave Karpinski, president of Lake Erie Energy Development Corp., the non-profit developer of the wind farm.
However, the board now still needs to approve LEEDCo’s plans to address a variety of topics, from mitigating harm to birds, bats, and fish to how to eventually decommission the wind farm. “We just have to do what we can to try to see if there’s a way that they’ll be addressed in a timely fashion,” Karpinski said, adding it’s unusual for the Power Siting Board to vote on such plans instead of handing the matter over to staff to work out.
Board members have also been under pressure from state lawmakers to remove the nighttime limits. Thirty-two Northeast Ohio lawmakers from both parties signed a letter urging the board to reconsider their earlier decision, including that the board offered “no compelling evidence” to override a recommendation by Power Siting Board staff and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to approve the project without the limit.
ODNR Director Mary Mertz, a member of the Power Siting Board, said during Thursday’s meeting that project supporters “presented some valid objections” to the night limit.
“I’m sure we will tighten restrictions if the data shows we need to do that,” Mertz said.
Earlier this week, cleveland.com reported that board members received a draft order that rejected both sides’ arguments and preserved the May order as is – including the limits on nighttime use. State Rep. Jeff Crossman, a Parma Democrat and a non-voting board member, said it appeared to him that voting board members were “caught off-guard by the story” and became concerned that their decision would look “pre-decided.”
Karpinski said the board’s decision Thursday was “very surprising” to him, though he was “really happy” with the end result.
The board rejected other objections made by supporters of Icebreaker Wind about additional conditions the board had placed on approving the project.
Board members also denied a motion to rehear the case made by opponents of the wind farm, who are unhappy the board approved the project at all. Those opponents, which include the Lake Erie Marine Trades Association, the nonprofit Lake Erie Foundation and the Black Swamp Bird Observatory, argue that a deeper environmental analysis is needed.
Michelle Burke, president of the Lake Erie Marine Trades Association, voiced disappointment in a statement that the Power Siting Board changed its mind about the nighttime rule, which was made to “avoid the wholesale slaughter of thousands of birds and bats migrating in the Lake Erie flyway.”
However, Burke said she believed the board will have sufficient grounds to reinstate such a policy at its next meeting, as “Icebreaker has never had a scientifically sound mitigation plan, we believe the Board will have sufficient grounds to reinstate such a condition at the next OPSB meeting.”
Supporters argue the project will generate $250 million for the local economy and create more than 500 jobs. Burke disputed those claims and said the goal of the pilot project is to build up to 1,600 wind turbines in Lake Erie.
“We are talking about a generational change to Ohio’s greatest natural resource,” she said.
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